How to write Star Trek

I’ve never been a Star Trek fan. I was too young to see the original series, and never got excited about the subsequent ones. But I loved JJ Abrams’  Mission: Impossible 3 and his TED talk on mystery, so I was looking forward to Star Trek. And felt a little underwhelmed. It’s very exciting, lovely to look at and sets up the team beautifully, but it never really finds a story. It’s there somewhere, in the dialogue scenes: Nero’s planet is destroyed as a result of Spock’s decision, so he tracks him down in the past and destroys his planet, Vulcan, in revenge. Or something like that. Tied into this is an origin tale, as the crew of the Enterprise assembles, and the end of the movie is the start of the series, as the familiar theme kicks in. But it doesn’t quite all tie together: it feels like three separate strands of movie — origin, action and story — that never coalesce into a single DNA. Whether or not you love the movie, however, anyone who can successfully please critics, audiences and devotees has achieved something difficult and special, as the team behind Watchmen now know to their cost. So I was interested to find, via John August, these notes from a session with the movie’s writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who give some useful insights into Star Trek, story structure and surviving in Hollywood:

  1. Background Working first as assistants for Sam Raimi on his Xena and Hercules series, the then 23 year old Orci and Kurtzman broke in early but struggled to get past the stigma of the fantasy genre until they met J.J. Abrams. Abrams appreciated their ability to give “A treatment to B material” and brought them onto Alias. The success of that relationship lead to work on Abrams’s Mission: Impossible 3, Fringe (which they co-created), and Star Trek.
  2. Kirk and Spock Kurtzman and Orci researched heavily, studying partnerships – Lennon and McCartney, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, for example — to explore why the core relationship of Kirk and Spock worked so well creatively for the series. Like Lennon and McCartney, both Spock and Kirk lose a parent. It’s something fundamental and shared that allows for a connection even with the contention and heated power struggle. Halfway through writing the first draft, Kurtzman and Orci discovered their own relationship as friends and writing partners had infused itself into the Kirk and Spock dynamic.
  3. Nero Nero’s storyline in Star Trek was much longer in both the script and the shoot. Much was left on the edit room floor. Nero was tortured by Klingons, had to wait out twenty-five years somewhere and spit out bitter monologues, etc. All but one shot was cut from the final version. They found in post that any time they took the story away from the heroes it sagged. Nero served only as a force to bring everyone together. Lesson: Sequels are for villains; origin stories are for heroes. Heroes determine structure. In further support, Alex Kurtzman offered the example of Iron Man, which he said was all about Robert Downey Jr. and the suit he forges. As for what Jeff Bridges was up to? No idea. Didn’t matter. Good as he may be on screen, we’re really just waiting to see Downey in the suit again. [Actually I disagree with this. It does matter. And it’s why Iron Man is great fun for the first hour but deeply frustrating in the second]
  4. Advice for the aspiring Mop floors, do anything you can to get inside and “reveal a surprise.” At age 23, the partners fetched coffee for the producers of Xena and Hercules. They wrote a spec episode and had it ready when the time was right. In short, move to Hollywood, look for your moment and be ready when luck strikes. Once you’re working, see studios as clients not villains out to ruin your art. Learn to love the process of rewriting. Be married to the sprit of words but not the words themselves. Often the studios have forced them to get beyond the “kernel” of the story in the first draft to explore new avenues and ultimately improve the story.
  5. How their partnership works They’d met in high school but it wasn’t until after college when they began editing each other’s love letters that their partnership began. Neither had any idea how to write, but they were able to expose embarrassing parts of themselves without worrying about being judged or “thrown in a locker.” Each has their strength – Kurtzman at creating moments and Orci on the macro story elements.They’ve been writing partners for 17 years. They credit that success to treating their relationship with the care of a marriage and applying some of the same adages: Don’t go to bed angry. Make sure one side doesn’t feel like they’re doing all the heavy lifting. Respect strengths and weaknesses.
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